The world of typography often seems like it has its very own language, full of serifs, strokes, and swashes.

Sorting out all those terms can be confusing in itself, so we’ve compiled a visual glossary that will guide you through the lingo — whether you’re an aspiring typeface designer or just a general typography enthusiast. Learning the building blocks of typography will help you better understand how to pick a suitable font and apply it effectively within your design projects.

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The Basics: Typefaces Categories & Styles

01. Font/Typeface:

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Back in the days of metal type and printing presses, fonts and typefaces were two different things — the typeface was the specific design of the letters, say Times New Roman or Baskerville; while the font referred to the particular size or style of that typeface, say 10 point regular or 24 point italic (each created as its own collection of cast metal letters and other characters). Today, however, many designers use the terms more or less interchangeably. The best and most straightforward modern definition I’ve run across (courtesy of Fontshop) goes as follows:

“A collection of letters, numbers, punctuation, and other symbols used to set text (or related) matter. Although font and typeface are often used interchangeably, font refers to the physical embodiment (whether it’s a case of metal pieces or a computer file) while typeface refers to the design (the way it looks). A font is what you use, and a typeface is what you see.”

02. Character:

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An individual symbol of the full character set that makes up a typeface; may take the form of a letter, number, punctuation mark, etc.

03. Alternate Character / Glyph:

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A non-standard (sometimes decorative) variation of a character that comes as an extra option with a font file.

04. Serif:

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A short line or stroke attached to or extending from the open ends of a letterform; also refers to the general category of typefaces that have been designed with this feature.

05. Sans-Serif / Sans:

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Literally “without line”; the general category of typefaces (or an individual typeface) designed without serifs.

06. Italic:

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A slanted version of a typeface (slants from left to right); a true italic is uniquely designed, more than a tilted version of the upright (a.k.a. “roman”) typeface.

The Foundation: Positioning & Spacing

07. Baseline:

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The imaginary line on which most letters and other characters sit.

08. Cap Line:

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The imaginary line that marks the upper boundary of capital letters and some lowercase letters’ ascenders (see Ascender definition in the next section).

09. X-Height:

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The height of a typeface’s lowercase letters (disregarding ascenders and descenders).

10. Tracking / Letter-Spacing:

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The uniform amount of spacing between characters in a complete section of text (sentence, line, paragraph, page, etc.).

11. Kerning:

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The horizontal spacing between two consecutive characters; adjusting the kerning creates the appearance of uniformity and reduces gaps of white space between certain letter combinations.

12. Leading / Line-Spacing:

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The vertical spacing between lines of text (from baseline to baseline).

The Anatomy of a Letter

13. Stroke:

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A single linear element that forms part of a character; may be straight or curved.

14. Stem:

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The main (usually vertical) stroke of a letterform.

15. Arc of Stem:

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A curved stroke that is continuous with a stem.

16. Foot:

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The part of the stem that rests on the baseline.

17. Descender:

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A piece of a letter that extends below the baseline.

18. Ascender:

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A part of a lowercase letter that rises above the main body of the letter (above the x-height).

19. Joint:

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The point where a stroke connects to a stem.

20. Apex:

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The uppermost connecting point of a letterform where two strokes meet; may be rounded, sharp/pointed, flat/blunt, etc.

21. Vertex:

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The point at the bottom of a character where two strokes meet.

22. Crotch:

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The inside angle where two strokes meet.

23. Arm:

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A horizontal stroke that does not connect to a stem on one or both ends.

24. Leg:

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A short, descending stroke on a letterform.

25. Shoulder:

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A curved stroke extending down from a stem.

26. Bar / Crossbar:

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An enclosed horizontal stroke.

27. Cross Stroke:

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A line that extends across/through the stem of a letter.

28. Bowl:

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The closed, round or oval curve of a letter.

29. Counter:

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An enclosed or partially enclosed area of white space within a letter; could be bounded by curves, strokes, or stems.

30. Aperture:

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The opening or partially enclosed negative space created by an open counter.

31. Double-Story:

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A type of letter that has two counters (as opposed to the single-story version, which has only one counter).

32. Terminal:

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The end of any stroke that doesn’t include a serif; includes ball terminals (circular in shape) and finials (curved or tapered in shape).

33. Swash:

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A decorative extension or stroke on a letterform; may be part of a letter by design or available either as an additional glyph or as an add-on to the standard character.

34. Ligature:

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Two or more letters that are connected to form one character; primarily decorative (the embellishment that connects the two letters is called a “gadzook”).

Make sure to bookmark this page as your typography glossary and a complete visual reference to all the typographic anatomy terms covered in this article!

Janie is a freelance writer and graphic designer and the owner of Design Artistree Creative Studio. After college, she built on her background in art to explore design...and loved it. Now, she enjoys finding ways to combine the craftsmanship of traditional fine arts with the digital possibilities of graphic design.